Warning! Warning! Warning!
If you have OCD tendencies, you may want to avoid renting Contagion now that it’s out on video. You see, there might have been a squirrel (maybe one of those rally bastards from St. Louis) carrying a squirrely virus around. That squirrel ate a bit of a nut and then left it by the pond where a frog licked it. Then some little kid came along and picked up the frog, and now that kid has the squirrel virus that has mutated into a squirrel/frog virus. The kid takes the frog home and keeps it in a box. That kid happens to wipe his snotty nose on his hands and then use the railing that you are about to touch because you don’t want to fall down a flight of stairs. See how this thing works? See how easy it would be to get infected? All you have to do is live your life like a normal person. So if you should choose to watch Contagion, get out your antibacterial wipes and put on your facemasks, because this movie is about to terrorize you. You may end up quarantining yourself in your house for the next few weeks just to make sure that you don’t give the squirrel/frog virus to anyone else. And if you return your video to a Redbox location, be sure to wipe everything down with an antibacterial cloth.
The grand lesson of Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic thriller: Never touch anything, especially your face (which you happen to touch unconsciously about 2,500-3,000 times a day). Touching = transmission. Transmission without vaccine = death.
This is an end-of-the-world sort of movie, appropriate for 2012. You get the sense that the epidemic in the movie could wipe out the entire human race, but without all the razzmatazz. Soderbergh, to his credit, plays things straight, relying on the fact that a global viral epidemic is scary enough. He scuttles us along to the sound of pulsating electronic music, going from city to city and person to person, on the chase for the invisible enemy. There is a woman in Hong Kong who gets sick. On her way back to her Minneapolis home, she finds time for a layover tryst in Chicago. The disease – a pig/bat blend – begins to slowly spread. Soderbergh brings in experts from the center for disease control in Atlanta; he follows a loony from San Francisco who believes (or at least appears to believe) that he has the cure for the pig/bat disease; and he also follows the very attractive Marion Cotillard as she is kidnapped in exchange for a cure!
Contagion is, above all other things, a great horror movie. It is so horrifying, so close to the truth, that many people didn’t go to see it in the theatre despite the all-star cast. It appears that even Gweneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, and the aforementioned Cotillard cannot draw the masses to a movie about mass sickness. I guess there’s nothing fun about imagining a world plagued by a virus that can’t be tracked, figured out, or controlled, much less be destroyed. There are no shock moments or ugly monsters to watch; just a bunch of official-looking (unusually attractive) people wandering around, trying to figure out what the hell they are supposed to do with themselves. No, Contagion is not a zombie movie.
And that is exactly why Contagion is well worth watching. It forces us in clever ways to imagine a horror that is actually possible. The center for disease control really does exist in Atlanta; it’s not some fictional government agency from the future. In presenting us with a real world horror, Soderbergh begs us to ask how we would react if something like this actually happened. Would we trample over each other to get to that limited supply of the vaccine? Would we blame every government official we could think of for not being able to stop something that we couldn’t even begin to understand? Would we loot the grocery stores at every hint of a media scare? Would we put our unthinking trust in every chance of a cure? Would we do devious things to protect our loved ones? It’s harder to ask these serious questions when the movie you’re watching is about the Mayan apocalypse of 2012.
Many viewers will be disappointed in the fact that Soderbergh petulantly moves between story lines and characters without any thought for developing a main plot arc. This is a movie that imagines a big event, a worldwide event, and it tries to track the global along with the individual implications. Contagion, as a narrative film, belongs to everyone. Each individual action, whether intentionally or not, has the potential for huge consequences for everyone else in the world. There are no single characters on this Earth. There is only us, everyone, maddeningly together.